No, no kidding here. Just as no kidding when we say that libraries categorize folktale volumes under „nonfiction”. Of course when we make the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, we tend to draw an analogy between this, and fact-fiction. However, nonfiction doesn’t immediately mean „fact”. Let’s look at it this way: folktales always express some deep truth about a certain culture. These are the stories that have been told by people from generation to generation, the stories that children hear from a very young age, and grow up considering their own later on. Very often folktales give us great insight into a culture’s religious rituals, and they always reflect a nation’s core value systems. So it’s only logical not to consider them fiction. And it is a good idea as well, if you want to get a deeper understanding of a nation’s way of thinking and organizing their life, to dive deep into their folktales! Nowadays as even many fields of psychology get redefined along intercultural aspects, finding new ways of approaching interpersonal relationships and intercultural communication gets more important every day. So let’s see some of the ways in which reading folktales can teach you essential skills for international business life!
Being a good person
I think it’s safe to say that most of the folktales revolve around the question of what it means to be a good person. As much as different countries’ tales differ in their plot, characters, and their motivations, they still have something in common: the classical battle between good and evil. No matter where you grew up, the folktales you heard from early childhood surely had a pretty clear vision of what it means to be a good person. And this question doesn’t have to remain a theoretical one. To the contrary, in these tales being good is always something really practical. Think of all the obstacles the heroes have to face! In Hungarian folktales for example many times the obstacle itself consists of being able to resist temptation, or being able to choose the right path when there is a much easier one available just at arm’s reach. Heroes are often tested, and they can get their well-deserved reward only if they proved to be really strong, both morally and mentally. This of course doesn’t mean that in other nations’ folktales all these aspects aren’t important, but rather that the focus is somewhere else.
When is comes to what it means to be a good person, religious and/or spiritual beliefs are very important as well. Folktales are great maps to a culture’s belief system, showing their attitude towards higher powers, gods, good and evil forces that work beyond the material world, etc.
Most European countries for example have tales that have the number three as the core organizing element, which is most often linked to the Holy Trinity. It’s also interesting to see the main character’s journey with regards to their loyal helpers. Do the heroes have lots of helpers from outside the material world, or are these helpers rather human beings, animals, or any other kind of perfectly visible, earthly creatures? The answer to this question may be of help when aiming to understand a culture’s attitude towards help for example. While in cultures where social networks are important above all else, accepting and asking for help during a though job is not only normal, but expected even, in result-focused cultures it is more accepted for individuals to reach their goals alone, counting only on themselves, and the greater the individual effort, the more admired the results.
When it comes to being a good person, there is another topic that seems to be really important in folktales around the world, and that is the question of humility. Whether the small prince of Romanian tales, or the beautiful Russian Vasilisa, the folktales’ heroes somehow always seem to get to a point in their life where they can really move forward thanks to their humility. And the perception of humility is certainly one thing that deeply shapes a nation’s work ethic and work-related principles.
What happens to the characters who fail to take responsibility for their actions? Do they get a really severe punishment, or they just seem to vanish at some point in the plot? And to what extent are the characters required to take responsibility? When something unpleasant happens, who is to blame? One of the human characters, or maybe there is always some kind of strange creature, who as opposed to the helpers always tries to make everything impossible for the protagonist? And here with a small detour we have arrived to the villains of the folktales: what constitutes a stereotypical villain?
In folktales people are always divided into good and bad, there is no in between, and that is because the characters in these tales are always archetypes. And if these tales revolve around what it means to be a good person, it is only logical that at the same time they give a pretty clear picture of what it means to be a bad person as well. So, basically if you want to see some of the core values of a society, study their heroes and villains as well, to get a list of what constitutes expected good behaviour, and what is considered to be destructive. And let both the heroes and the antagonists teach you about the many ways of taking responsibility, but also when it is advised to let the ego rest a bit, and not take responsibility for something you are not actually responsible for. All very important factors to consider when getting acquainted with the work ethics of a society!
The main point
What is the most important for the characters of a folktale? What is their main drive? What set off the quest in the first place? Was it finding love, building a house, proving something, or maybe wanting to escape from abuse, getting revenge, or wanting to create a better living space without wanting to hurt anyone? After all, the main conflict of a folktale, the event or situation that sets off the entire plot, is always related to some of the deepest human needs or desires. And even if the plot is full of twists and new goals and challenges keep popping up, the main drives remain there underneath all along, and they can be pretty informative with regards to the most important values of a culture.
And one more thing: folktales are also a great illustration of how we are so very alike and different at the same time. Which is always something to keep in mind, in our personal and work lives as well. So next time you are waiting at the airport, maybe take some folktales with you!